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The Real Score
by Geoff Kelly
Chris Collins believes his first term was a hole-in-one, but a true tally shows a number of flubbed putts and out-of-bounds shots
In his advertisements and rare public appearances during this campaign season (two debates, zero community meet-the-candidates events), Chris Collins has expressed great pride in his performance as Erie County executive: Promises made, he says, and promises kept. Indeed, Collins has accomplished many things that he set out to do since he took office in January 2008.
Still, we suspect that his self-scoring might be a little skewed—that he might have forgotten a couple strokes, improved his lie here and there, forgiven himself some penalties. So we’ve decided to take a more careful look at his initial round.
The Erie County Industrial Development Agency
Collins started strong here, with an example of the bold and iconoclastic play that his reputation in the private sector led voters to expect: In January 2008, at his very first meeting as an ex officio member of the ECIDA’s board of directors, Collins questioned an $87,000 tax break that was to be extended to the owners of Martin’s Fantasy Island, the Grand Island amusement park, to help them establish two new rides. “I really think the taxpayers are giving in this case a subsidy to Martin’s Fantasy Island that isn’t necessary,” Collins told the Buffalo News. “They’re going to buy that piece of equipment anyway regardless of whether they get the sales tax exemption.”
Regardless what quadrant of the political spectrum one occupies, this seemed promising: Too often the ECIDA’s subsidies are favors to connected business owners and real-estate developers, distorting marketplace competition for existing customers and resources rather than helping to create new economic activity. “When someone asks for $87,000 and they’re not creating any jobs, a red flag goes up,” Collins said. “At what point in time is it proper for a public sector entity to partner with an individual business where they’re not creating any jobs?”
Alas, Collins’s bold play off the tee was soon compromised by conservative play on the fairway. A month later, Fantasy Island was granted its tax breaks, despite Collins’s objections. A month after that, he named four new board members to the ECIDA, including two close friends and supporters, Phil Corwin and Phil Ackerman, who became (and remains) board chairman. Once he’d consolidated control of the ECIDA’s board, Collins began using the agency to hand out tax breaks to friends and supporters like every other bush league political hack who proceeded him: In August 2009, for example, Collins’s ECIDA approved more than $1 million in tax breaks for WNY Urology Associates, a cancer treatment center, one of whose principals is Dr. Kent Chevli, a close personal friend to Collins and a financial donor to his campaign fund and to the campaign fund of Phil Corwin’s wife, Jane. Roswell Park Cancer Institute objected to the subsidy, arguing that the new equipment it underwrote would give WNY Urology a leg up in the competition for cancer patients. More recently, the ECIDA granted $135,000 in tax breaks to the redevelopers of 157 West Mohawk Street: noted Republicans Anthony Baynes and Kent Frey. Frey has donated $14,250 to Collins’s campaign fund. (There are more examples: To see a list, visit AV Daily at Artvoice.com on Friday.)
Score: We’d say it’s par for the course, but Collins ran on a promise not to behave like every other politician before him. So it’s a bogey.
The Crash of Flight #3407
Collins performed admirably here, just one month into office: He stayed out of the spotlight, for the most part, and let the emergency responders do their jobs.
Score: It’d be nice if this were a par, but too many public officials take advantage of catastrophes to cover themselves in glory, so Collins gets a solid birdie on this hole.
A year into his term, Collins was faced with a minor scandal: A company in which he had an ownership stake, Volland Electric Equipment, was granted a repair contract for the county without any legislative review or approval. The executive director of the county’s control board, Kenneth Vetter, alerted legislators when the contract came to his agency for approval, and a stink ensued: Why had the contract been let in such a way as to skirt legislative oversight? (The answer was technical: The purchasing department viewed the contract not as a service but as a good, which on the face of it makes no sense, but that’s government for you.) Why had the administration failed to note Collins’s interest in the company when the contract was sent to the control board?
Score: Collins acquitted himself fairly well here, too: The scandal was clearly the result of sloppiness rather than corruption; the company withdrew its bid and Collins declared that no company in which he had a stake would bid on county business while he remained in office. He salvaged a par out of a bad lie.
Erie County Planning Board
Twenty years ago, Erie County had a planning board that was meant to coordinate the development plans of the county’s various municipalities. In 2009, the Erie County Legislature voted nine to six to reinstitute a regional, advisory planning board, as proposed by Legislator Maria Whyte and recommended in the “Framework for Regional Growth,” a study completed during Joel Giambra’s administration, which laid out a strategy to combat sprawl. Collins vetoed the plan, arguing that a countywide planning board represented an unnecessary layer of government. None of the three Democrats on the Legislature who voted against it initially could be convinced to join the vote to override his veto. The plan died.
Score: This was certainly par for Collins: His dismissal of the Democratic legislators who supported this and their motives (he accused them of trying to create a new patronage pit) typifies his arrogance in the face of ideas that conflict with his ideology. But his play here also revealed some troubling inconsistencies in his swing that are catching up with him now. He’s against extra layers of government, but he’s proposing a new taxing district to fund the public library system and opposes any effort to streamline the county’s numerous firefighting districts, as suggested by his opponent in Tuesday’s election, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz. He thinks it’s just fine that the county has six industrial development agencies, with their attendant staffs and expenses, trying to poach businesses from one another.
That’s right: The Republican in this race advocates more government; the Democrat advocates less. What?
WIC, Daycare Subsidies, Health Clinic Closings
Here, another troubling hitch in Collins’s swing was revealed. In the first budget he authored himself (having merely administered in his first year the budget his predecessor, Giambra, had written), Collins sought to eliminate the county’s role in delivering a number of social service programs. Namely, he ended the county’s participation in WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), a program entirely funded with federal dollars that provides free, healthy food and nutrition and breastfeeding education and support to needy families. He closed two health clinics that served impoverished communities in the City of Buffalo. And he sought to end daycare subsidies to working mothers. None of these measures saved the county money. The funding all came from elsewhere; the county merely administers the programs. In some ways, the loss of these programs may cost the county money: Mothers who cannot afford daycare without subsidies may not be able to work anymore, and so may end up receiving other social services; patients who cannot receive early care at low-cost clinics may wind up in expensive emergency rooms down the line; and putting county workers who were paid with federal dollars to administer the WIC program on the unemployment lines costs the taxpayers and the local economy.
But Collins’s play here—most everywhere, in fact—is driven by ideology: He believes that county government should not be in the business of delivering services to the poor. He is entitled to his beliefs, of course, and was empowered by the voters of Erie County to impose them to the degree that his office permits him to do so. But ideology untempered by common sense and compassion do not make for good government. And this is government, not a business.
Score: Triple bogey.
Sometimes, when Collins talks about Six Sigma, his eyes grow wider than usual; he looks like a devotee of some New Age cult delivering the Good News about our Space Alien Saviors. Here’s the straight skinny on Six Sigma, as implemented in Erie County government: 1.) Collins has had four directors of Six Sigma, paid for with our tax dollars, in four years. (The most recent departure took place last month.) 2.) In September 2009, the Collins administration’s repeated failure to demonstrate to the control board any savings achieved through the Six Sigma had the control board’s executive director, Vetter, in a state of frustrated, open rebellion: “We’ve been telling him that we need verifiable accounting savings,” Vetter told us at the time. At that point the control board had already spent $1 million in efficiency grants on Collins’s vaunted Six Sigma program, but Collins would not or could not verify the savings he claimed to have achieved. 3.) The institute at the University at Buffalo that has the contract to train county employees in Six Sigma donated to Collins’s campaign, giving the whole business an unsavory, pay-to-play aroma. (The donation, made through the UB Foundation, was returned after it was made public.) 4.) To date, the Collins administration still has failed to demonstrate any savings achieved through Six Sigma. Collins throws out numbers but offers no evidence to justify them.
Score: Six Sigma? Six strokes. Double bogey.
Speaking of Pay-to-Play…
On a couple of occasions this campaign season, Collins has been asked about the contracts directed to his big contributors, most notably the Harris Beach law firm, whose massive contributions have been repaid many times over by their contract to do legal work for the ECIDA. His response has been some version of the phrase, “Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t do that sort of thing,” but the evidence suggest he does: Take, for example, Amherst Paving, whose principals donated $4,500 to Collins for Our Future in 2011, and All American Companies of WNY, which donated $5,000 to Collins for Our Future in 2011. Both companies currently are engaged in a lucrative, no-bid contract to resurface Eden-Evans Center Road. This sort of return on investment is nothing new in Erie County politics, or in politics anywhere, but it ill becomes Collins to claim he is immune to the disease when the symptoms are as evident in his administration as they’ve been in any previous administration.
Score: Bogus. Excuse me—bogey.
Politicizing the Office
Collins accuses his opponent, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, of politicizing his office—of having used his position to launch baseless political attacks against Collins in order to gain advantage in this year’s race. There’s some truth to that; Poloncarz sometimes has challenged the boundary between his role as fiscal watchdog and potential candidate. But Collins is guilty of the same sin, using his executive powers to attack the comptroller’s office in manners both petty (stripping Poloncarz’s employees of parking spots in the basement of the Rath Building) to substantial (attempting to slash personnel from the comptroller’s office, effectively crippling its audit functions). The latter is worse than political trickery: It’s a hobbling of our government. Intentional or heedless—both are bad.
The Erie County Holding Center
Collins may be the only person in Erie County who believes he birdied this hole. He used taxpayer funds to pay outside attorneys to combat the federal government’s perfectly reasonable demands that the county upgrade its detention facilities and services, so that maybe fewer inmates would hang themselves or be denied medical care or be crowded into inadequate cells—all conditions that expose the county to liability, not to mention accusations of inhumanity. US Attorney Bill Hochul, said that the situation could have been resolved years ago, without costly litigation, if Collins had been willing to engage in negotiations instead of lawsuits. Indeed, the Giambra administration was negotiating a settlement but Collins ended those talks when he took office.
Score: Bogey for Collins, who performed like a washed-up TV star in a pro-am tournament. The lawyers he hired, the pros, won the new Jaguar parked beside the fairway as a premium.
Funding for Public Libraries
Collins manufactured a crisis in the county’s public library system by deciding that the county should not be in the library business. Why? Again, ideology is the only apparent reason: He’s provided no data to suggest that his plan of a special taxing district to support libraries will create a stronger, more vital system, or even that it will save taxpayers money. Further, he has learned the hard way that the public library system is a popular government service: His attempt to slash funding in last year’s budget caused such a public uproar that he was forced to backpedal, restoring money that he claimed was unavailable. In the interim, the library’s board of directors, controlled by Collins’s appointees and reacting to his edict that he was cutting the libraries loose, undertook cuts and layoffs that will not easily be reversed.
Score: Collins did well to salvage a bogey out of this hole; as with the previous hole, he’s got to rethink his approaches, or he’s going to keep landing in the deep bunkers.
Collins for Governor
As the next two holes demonstrated, Collins wasn’t even hitting to the right fairway.
Score: Incomplete. Picked up his ball and went home.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver = Anti-Christ
In October 2009, Collins was so confident in his game that he was positioning himself for a whole new level of competition: a run for the governor’s office. And then, during a Republican dinner at the Adam’s Mark Hotel, he made a joke comparing Silver, an Orthodox Jew and one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, to Hitler and the Anti-Christ. It wasn’t the first time, either: He’d made the same joke to a class of Buffalo State College students just a few days earlier.
Score: After hitting his tee shot way out of bounds, Collins hacked at the ball in the rough with a litany of denials, half apologies, and defensive postures. When I used to play golf, my friends would stop counting strokes at 10. So that’s what we’ll do here.
“I’m sure if you offer someone a lap dance, you can find a place to sit”
So said Collins to Laura Zaepfel, nee Montante—as in the family that owns Uniland Development and donates heavily to Republicans—at Governor David Paterson’s State-of-the-State speech in January 2010.
Score: That’s two shots in a row, way out-of-bounds. Collins was left wandering in the woods after this one, looking for his lost gubernatorial hopes. (On the other hand, the incident generated the best headline AV has concocted in years: “Chris Collins: Running His Mouth Like a Business.” So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.) For the voters of New York State, this marked the completion of a sort of “Amen Corner” in Collins’s political career.
Erie County Medical Center
Collins says he’s taken the county out of the hospital business—as if that’s indisputably a good thing—and yet the county still subsidizes ECMC to the tune of $16 million per year, and the county is ultimately responsible for $100 million in ECMC debt. Which is to say, the county has a deep financial interest in keeping ECMC vital and solvent, which sounds a lot like the county is in the hospital business.
Score: This is why Collins needs someone else to count his strokes. Bogey.
With Friends Like Chris…Konst and Fudoli, Corwin and Lee, Miller-Williams and the Rogue Democrats
The voters of New York State may have whispered a collective “Amen” when Collins blew up his own campaign for governor, but other politicians have not been spared the consequences of his gamesmanship. He lured Democrat Kathy Konst out of the Legislature with a high-paying job in his administration shortly before she was to stand for re-election, paving the way for a Republican protege, Dino Fudoli, to slip into her seat. Konst’s career as a Democrat is thus over; her perfidy will never be forgiven. Nor is she likely to find shelter among Republicans, who have no stomach for traitors, either. Fudoli is running for Lancaster town supervisor this year rather than attempting to win a second term on the downsized, redistricted Legislature; recent revelations about his past drug use threaten his longtime viability as a public servant. (That may be unfair to Fudoli but it’s a fact he’ll have to overcome or succumb to.)
Collins brought his friend Jane Corwin (pictured) into politics, helping her to win the Assembly seat vacated by the scandal-ridden Michael Cole (now trying to overcome that personal scandal and return to public service as a county legislator). He then promoted Corwin as a successor to the scandal-ridden Chris Lee, who irritated Collins by winning the Congressional seat that Collins himself had coveted for so long—the seat, in fact, on the path to which the county executive’s office was intended to be a stepping-stone. Collins loaned Corwin his crack staff of campaign strategists, who allowed a Democrat to win in a district that has been Republican since the Civil War.
Meantime, for the past two years Collins has had his way with the Legislature on most matters dear to him, by means of a coalition of the six Republicans and three rogue Democrats, led by Chair Barbara Miller-Williams. (Miller-Williams is the symbol of the political alliance between Collins and Mayor Byron Brown, a relationship that prevents Brown from supporting Poloncarz.) For her dalliance with Republicans, the Erie County Democratic Party refused to endorse her for re-election to the new District 1. She’s running on a party line of her own creation against the endorsed Democrat, Tim Hogues, and the endorsed Conservative, Joe Mascia; she probably will lose to one of them. One of the other two rogue Democrats, Tim Whalen, is out of the picture, thanks to redistricting. The other, Tina Bove, faces a tough race against Joe Lorigo, son of the county’s Conservative Party chairman, Ralph Lorigo, an ardent Collins supporter.
Score: Do not engage in team play with this man. Birdie for Collins; double bogey for anyone who plays with him.
Funding of Arts and Cultural Organizations
If you read this newspaper regularly, or any newspaper at all, you know the story here: Collins slashed funding cultural organizations that rely on the county for support, preserving lowered subsidies for just the “Big 10” institutions that he regards as tourism attractions. Rather than reiterate that narrative or argue that it’s a badly struck shot, we draw your attention to the flaws in Collins’s engagement of the ball: In his first foray into dealing with arts funding, Collins discarded the advisory board which has for many years provided recommendations on which institutions deserve public funding. Collins then demanded that institutions that wished to receive funding allow him to appoint his friends to their boards. Then, without producing any study—or even any evidence that a study was undertaken—to justify his determination, he chose which 10 of the 40-odd cultural institutions provided significant tourist draws and which did not.
Score: You can’t say Collins lacks self-confidence, but one could hope that he’d enlist expertise and facts in making big decisions; even the most talented players benefit from coaching and study. Collins is fond of saying, “In God we trust; all others, bring data.” He has brought no data to this discussion (at least none that he has shared with the public), but we’ve got some: In 2005, $1 in county funding leveraged $6-$10 in philanthropy, depending on size of an organization’s budget. The economic impact of the culturals in 2005 was $155.3 million, accounting for 2,700 jobs, and $6 million in revenue to local governments and the same amount to state government—in other words, twice the county’s subsidy. If Collins can’t see that’s a good deal, he’s blind.
Collins is digging himself a hole on this issue by claiming that the county is better off, job-wise, since he took office. In fact, the county has 14,000 fewer jobs than it did in July 2008, before the recession took hold. It’s true, as Collins argues, that he’s not responsible for that recession, but he shouldn’t tout Western New York’s relatively low unemployment rate to justify his policies: Our unemployment rate is low compared to the national average because the workforce has shrunk. People have left to find employment elsewhere.
Score: This is a par: There’s not much Collins could have done to prevent the job loss or the reduction in the county’s workforce. Of course, he could have used stimulus money to put people to work and placed more value on the economic activity generated by public sector employees, but that’s the next hole.
Job Cuts and Stimulus Money
Collins claims credit for budget surpluses that were only possible because President Barack Obama sent New York State and its counties millions of dollars in stimulus funds intended to prevent local governments from being forced to stop putting people to work on infrastructure projects because of budget shortfalls created by the financial crisis. Collins hoarded the money, and now, in an election year, he is allowing some of it to trickle out so that voters will admire the good job he’s doing.
Meantime, his budget for 2012 includes layoffs of hundreds of social service workers, most of whose salaries (about 75 percent on average) are paid by state and federal programs. If these layoffs are meant to be accompanied by new efficiencies, they have not manifested yet: Collins’s first deputy for commissioner for social services recently sent an email to his employees, warning them not to blame any holdups experienced by customers on staffing shortages.
Score: I don’t know, does it really matter? It seems like he blew this round on the front nine. But I suppose voters will settle the question on Tuesday, November 8. What do you think: Has Collins made the cut?blog comments powered by Disqus
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